Behind the Commonplace
Wherein Mr. Easy-Going Husband discovers that a punch in time may be the price of peace
OF COURSE the missus insisted on driving, and of course she stripped the gears. Then she insisted I’d been stripping the gears ever, since we bought the car. It took me till near midnight to jolly her into paying for the parts if I’d pay for the work. So, late as it was, I hotfooted it to Marter’s Garage—Sam Marter’s, you know, opposite the police station, orphan car service a specialty.
I reckoned on a few hands of rummy to settle was it up to me to pay for the work or was it up to Sam to do it free gratis for nothing. Sam’s just that kind of gambling fool.
Well, Sam and his mechanic and a night watchman and a fellow from the firehall were still going strong at five cents a game, with Sam hanging on like grim death trying to get back the ten cents he’d lost.
T lit my pipe and settled down for a long wait, when I heard a car stop outside, and next minute a pretty woman ran across the road and up the police station steps. I nudged Sam.
“Bill Adams’ woman,” said Sam.
“Yes,” said I, “but why’s she running into the police station at midnight?”
“Don’t bother me,” snorted Sam. “I’m busy.”
A long time after, Bill Adams’ wife came out and jumped into her car. By the way she stepped on the gas I could tell she meant business.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Did Bill beat her up?” “Wrong?” said Sam. “What wouldn’t be wrong, after the way she’s been running around with Ben Bragg. A woman that’s had two husbands should be satisfied, I say—but Edna likes to step out.”
“That Bragg’s some stepper,” put in the night watchman.
“Looks like he’s stepped into a buzz-saw,” I shot back, pretty slick, if I say it myself.
At that they all looked up, and seen Ben Bragg limp into the police station. A big man, Ben Bragg, young, lusty, good-looking—once. But now his face was made over with black eyes and bruises and sticking plaster and bandages, for all the world like the map of Europe after Bill Adams won the Great War.
Ben Bragg went into the police station, too. Sam Marter sat a long, long minute with jaws agape.
“At last it’s come!” he exclaimed. “In a few minutes you’ll see Bill come humping to tell his story.” “Bill,” said I, “can’t come. He’s got to stay home to mind the kids.”
At once Sam Marter keened up.
“What’ll you bet Bill Adams doesn’t come?”
I caught my breath. It was a long shot, to judge by the look of Ben Bragg, but I took it.
“I’ll bet you the repair work on that bum orphan car you sold me,” said I, “that Bill stays home with the kids. Just the work,” I told him. “The missus pays for the parts out of her allowance, and I figger that’s lost money anyway.”
Sam Marter said: “Done!” That’s how I got my orphan car running again and it never cost me a cent.
rT"'HE foregoing prosaic narrative of Mr. Hawkins Snell piqued my curiosity. The Carisford Meteor published nothing about the case. Police Chief Soames emphatically had no information to impart. But behind the commonplace of how Hawkins Snell cadged that gambling fool, Sam Marter, into fixing his orphan car for nothing lay a story.
Edna Dean Mavity Adams had had bad luck in husbands. Née Dean, she first married Mavity. Then she supported both Mavity and baby Cora, which shows there was good stuff in her. A right smart girl, Edna, except when it came to picking men.
From playing both man and woman in the Mavity household and both mother and father to little Cora, Edna developed a craving for a dynamic husband.
“If Mavity would only beat me!” she mourned.
Mavity was too utterly lazy to do even that. The commonest and only bad thing he did was to punctuate the tedium of his dolce far niente existence by getting drunk; the rare and only good thing he did was, ultimately, to add a period to the rest of the punctuation by walking off the railroad bridge one dark night.
His belated demise shocked Edna, for till she really got to know him she’d hoped great things from Mavity. She’d even hoped he might, inspired by a good woman’s love, duplicate the dazzling career of his famous cousin, Benjamin Mavity Bragg.
But Edna rallied from the shock when she recollected that she was still young and would always be pretty. And at that psychological moment Bill Adams blew into Carisford.
Actually, he did not blow. He wasn’t that kind. Nor had he won the war. He didn’t even claim to have won it. He refused even to talk about the war. Al! he
wanted was to forget it. His dominant characteristic was an intense craving for peace.
Semmes, the superintendent at the new body plant, noticed that while the bodies turned out by other workmen had to go back for retouching, Bill Adams’ jobs fitted perfectly. He was a bit slow, steady as the clock, and tremendously exact. His job liked him, and his greatest joy in life was to work overtime.
Edna Mavity saw in Bill Adams a dependable mealticket. She craved romantic thrills too; but if Bill Adams, slim and not very tall and rather tanned, didn’t thrill her, and if his diligence at the body plant wasn’t romantic, his fighting past could surely be exploited. He shone in contrast with Mavity, who had escaped conscription because he was a married man with a wife and child to support.
Bill Adams wanted peace; a home suggested peace, and Edna Mavity’s smile was prettier than any picture. In a street full of flappers men turned to gaze after her. Now that she no longer had Mavity to support, she dressed like that; and even in Mavity’s day she’d always looked like that.
She smiled on Bill Adams, but when he asked her to marry him, she warded him off:
“I’ve been married once, Bill. I wasn’t too happy. And—there’s Cora.”
“Cora,” said Bill bluntly, “likes me better than she likes you.”
Edna winced, but she purred on:
“I don’t want to marry again, Bill. But—I might marry a man who could step out a bit.”
“I’m stepping,” said prosaic Bill. “Full time and overtime money in the bank . . . ”
Anyway, Bill Adams, who craved peace in huge gobs, was married a little later to Edna Mavity, who wanted a man who could step out.
"pOR a couple of years, new clothes and a new bungalow and little Ted and the ease that came of having a real provider, satisfied Edna’s craving for thrills. Then prosaic Bill Adams began to irk her.
She got up little parties where she tried to parade him as a hero and get him to talk about what he did in the Great War.
“No more war for me,” said Bill Adams. “What I crave is peace in enormous quantities.” At which Edna clouded like the Balkans.
Bill’s idea of happiness was to come home at night, dandle little Cora or baby Ted on his knee, and sing. Songs he made up himself, silly things, to tunes he knew—old tunes mostly, the ones grandma forgot in her youth. Like “Captain Jinks”:
The pussy cat has hair outside,
It covers all of his pesky hide.
Would you rather have her boiled or fried For breakfast in the morning?
The way he changed the cat’s sex in the middle of the song hurt Edna. So did the way he sang. Bill couldn’t sing worth sour apples. Edna writhed, most of all the night. Mrs. Vanstone dropped in and heard Bill invent a new variation of “Captain Jinks” for little Ted:
The Prince of Wales got on his horse,
Got on his horse, got on his horse,
And then he fell right off, of course,
So early in the morning.
“You can’t sing, Bill, and you shouldn’t try,” grumbled Edna after Mrs. Vanstone left. To emphasize that, she sang to little Cora in her pretty, tinkly voice, till Cora wriggled loose:
“Don’t make that noise, mamma. Daddy sing, ‘Poor little Cora’.”
That was a song Bill made up especially for Cora, just after he got married. Edna was very anxious, then, for her new husband and her first husband’s little girl to be friends. So she decked Cora out with ribbons and sent her out to Bill, who was peeling potatoes in the kitchen. Cora stumbled, and bumped her head. Bill made up the song while he rocked Cora and bathed the bump:
Poor little Cora with ribbons on her Went to the kitchen to see her Paw.
She did not notice where she was going And so she fell and bumped her jaw.
Poor little Cora should be more cautious And always watch what she’s about.
If she is careful where she is going
She will not fall and sprain her snout.
It galled Edna to hear her girl, Mavity’s girl, whenever she got hurt, clamor for Bill to sing that silly song. It galled Edna, after her big ambitions, to find herself chained to a man whose idea of huge achievement was to work full time and overtime, salt down his money, buy her new dresses, sing to the children, and conjure up alibis when she wanted him to accompany her to the Eastern Star.
“You’re too appallingly patient,” she told Bill. “You never lose your temper. There’s no fire in you at all, Bill.”
“I guess,” philosophized Bill, “I was under fire so much, I got to hate the stuff.”
At last the body company created a new department, put Bill in charge, and instead of a weekly envelope he got a monthly pay cheque representing more than Mavity had earned, or even got, in his whole married life.
“Now,” Bill told Edna, “we can step out.”
But his stepping out was as disappointingly prosaic as everything else about him. In the car he bought he’d drive on Sunday afternoons to the lake, with Edna and the youngsters; or in the evenings about Carisford; or Edna and he would pick up another couple and go to some Eastern Star function. And Edna craved real thrills. She wrote to Dorothy Dix about it.
AT THIS psychological moment the famous Ben Mavity Bragg arrived in Carisford in state, preceded by his reputation as “the sort of man who does things.” Edna opened the bungalow door one morning, and there sto_od a big, good-looking man of thirty past, and behind him a chauffeur carrying two expensivelooking club bags. He flicked the chauffeur a bill.' “Keep the change, garçon,” he said, negligently.
Then he submerged Edna with his million dollar smile.
“Don’t you know your cousin Ben?”
Edna fairly hugged him, and then telephoned Bill Adams at the body plant.
“Your cousin?” questioned Bill.
“N-no. His.” Between them, “his” always meant shiftless Mavity’s. “But he’s made a lot of money in South Dakota ”
“If he’s made money in South Dakota,” said Bill, “he’s either a road agent or entitled to the world’s respect.”
Ben Mavity Bragg looked as if he’d made all the money there was in South Dakota and then come home to spend it. At dinner his talk was all of investments, cornering the market, and making a killing. He had a big block of Standard Oil of New Jersey, bought at ten and now worth enormous sums; and he’d just jumped in on the solid ground floor of Standard of South Dakota which was due to repeat the performance.
“This old burg needs someone to wake it up,” said Ben Bragg, “and I’m the alarm clock.”
Everything about Ben Mavity Bragg—his prosperous aspect, his million dollar smile, his loud talk, his relationship to the deceased Mavity—were gall and wormwood to Bill Adams. But Bill Adams craved peace. If possible, peace without Ben Bragg, but peace at any price. So he let Ben boast about what he’d done and what he meant to do, while Edna listened and looked at Ben with eyes as wide and blue as her own willow-ware saucers.
After dinner, Bragg drew Bill Adams to one side:
“See here, old chap, I never carry money when I travel, especially coming through Chicago. Let me have $25 till I get my dividend cheque next week.”
Bill took him down town to get a cheque cashed, and Edna Adams stood at the window gazing after them. It’s funny how things sometimes burst on us. That morning she’d got up, washed the children’s faces, got breakfast, kissed Bill Adams good-by, and reflected that there might be worse husbands . . and here Ben
Bragg had arrived unexpectedly and turned her whole life upside down with the realization that husbands might be infinitely better.
If only she’d met Ben Bragg years ago! If only instead of luckless Mavity, she’d happened to meet Mavity’s famous and wealthy cousin ! If if only a
score of things had fallen out differently!
“Anyway,” she told herself, “there’s Bill.” Bill undoubtedly was there, as spectacular as a bump on a log. “And I’m an old married woman—a wonderful man like Ben will never even smile at me.”
But Ben did. Every few minutes when Ben Bragg was about the bungalow, he threw Edna a couple of million dollars’ worth of smile as freighted with meaning as an orphan car is with upkeep costs.
Bill Adams conquered his dislike sufficiently to offer Ben Bragg a job in the finishing department of the body plant.
“A day laborer?” sniffed Ben. “What d’you take me for?”
“W-why, I didn’t mean . . .”
“To offer a man of independent means a common factory job !” snorted Ben.
As none of the big concerns in Carisford were looking for presidents or managing directors, Ben spent his days digesting three meals and his nights distributing milliondollar smiles at dances and bridge parties.
“It’s out of my line,” Bill Adams told Edna. “Besides, someone’s got to stay home with Cora and Ted. Run along and have a good time.” So he got out the car, saw to tires and oil and gas; and off went Ben and Edna.
T3EN BRAGG’S dividend cheqne was delayed; so he floated a new loan with Bill Adams. Then he floated another, and another. Each loan he made, his tone was less apologetic and more assured.
“How about paying back some of this money?” Bill once suggested.
“Say,” drawled Bragg, “how d’you get that way? D’you mean to insinuate that I’m not good for a paltry hundred dollars ?”
Bill Adams craved peace. So he lent Bill more money. He did not want a scrap with Ben, and he dreaded what Edna would say. Silence, however, stimulated thought, and he got to thinking that a lusty, able-bodied man like Ben Bragg, whose visit promised to be of indefinite duration ought to pay board.
Edna flared at the suggestion.
“I’d like you to remember, Bill, that Ben’s our guest!” “Now, Edna ...”
“Why, if he heard you’d made such a suggestion he’d pack up and leave . ”
“I’d be tickled pink if he did,” Bill burst forth. “If he’d pack up his Standard of New Jersey and Standard of South Dakota and move out, I’d give him a receipt in full. Not that I’m not glad to have him here, pet,” he qualified, but too late.
At supper that evening Ben Bragg smiled his wonderful smile.
“Say, Bill, you run the bus around to the gas station and get the tank filled. I feel like a spin this evening. Better come along, Neddy—Bill will stay home and mind the kids.”
They got home pretty late. Edna’s eyes were bright. For the first time in a disappointing life she’d got thrills in plenty. She’d thrilled at the way Ben ordered things at the roadhouse, and at the way he danced, and at the way the women looked at him, and at the way he nonchalantly discussed his many killings oh the stock market . . . yes, and at the way he drove home. As for Bill, he repaired the busted fender, settled a damage claim, and said nothing.
"pDNA, bright-eyed at last, found herself caught up ' in a whirl of hectic imaginings. Ben Bragg had done big things. He was more nonchalant over making a million than Bill Adams over picking up a cent. He’d climbed Alps and driven airplanes and racing cars and
worsted armed bandits with his bare fists and told traffic cops where they could go. And with a curiously keen intuition he saw at a glance the grim jest life had played in linking a wonderful woman like her, first with a worthless bum, and then with a prosaic plodder.
She began by wishing Bill Adams was more like Ben Bragg, and she ended by picturing Ben Bragg in Bill Adams’ place.
“Edna”—he was awkwardly serious—“I wish you wouldn’t run around so much with Ben. Folks will be talking.”
“Puritans!” she burst forth, bitterly. “Full of midVictorian ideas. And you agree with them, of course.” She did not realize that she parroted the stuff Ben Bragg had taught her. “Can’t you realize, Bill, we’re living in a new age? Women are no longer mere property. Every human soul has a full right to the utmost selfexpression.”
Bill began to realize she was right.
“Can’t you trust me to take care of myself?” she finished.
Bill said nothing to that. He sat down, rocked Cora, and sang about the Prince of Wales getting on and off his horse. And thought, and thought, and thought.
Mostly he thought of interminable, horrible years in filthy dugouts and muddy trenches, under fire of German guns and British red-tabs; where he had learned to be patient and kindly and to hate anything that savored of strife.
At dinner Edna speculated as to what Mrs. Higgins would do with her $10,000 insurance money.
“Chicken-feed!” laughed Ben Bragg. “Where I’ve played the financial game, a man wouldn’t stoop to pick up anything so small!”
“But it means a lot to Mrs. Higgins,” said Bill.
Next day he came to Edna with a question.
“Why is Ben calling on Mrs. Higgins?”
By this time Edna became impatient with Bill on the slightest pretext.
“I guess Ben knows his business. Suppose you mind yours.”
She had come to the point where she calmly visioned a break with Bill; but, womanlike, she wanted him to put himself in the wrong.
Bill Adams next evening found Mrs. Higgins enthusiastic regarding that wonderful Mr. Bragg’s courtesy and kindness and sympathy. Mr. Bragg had counselled good government bonds as an investment for her insurance money, or, if she wanted a chance of appreciation with safety, he advised Standard of New Jersey or Standard of South Dakota. “You can’t go wrong on Standard Oil stocks,” he had told her; and warned her against fly-by-night promotions and high-pressure stock salesmen.
ViTHEN Bill Adams got home, Ben Bragg had taken Edna for an evening spin in the country. After Bill had put Cora and the baby to bed, he sat in the dark, thinking. He hated strife. He craved peace. So he was immensely relieved that Ben’s advice to old Mrs. Higgins was so honest and disinterested.
He was surprised, unquestionably; but he was relieved. He could not have been more relieved, or more surprised, if Ben Bragg had liquidated that series of loans made to tide him over till his dividends arrived.
Bill sat, hour after hour, placidly thinking. He told himself all the good things he knew and the far larger number of good things he had to imagine about Ben Mavity Bragg.
Ultimately—very much ultimately—a car stopped outside. Someone got out, with much gay laughter. The bungalow door opened, and closed. Ben and Edna had come home, but Edna forgot her usual “Yoo-hoo, Bill!”
While the two talked below stairs, Ben rummaged the ice-box for a midnight snack. A something less tangible and more insistent than a kick impelled Bill Adams, step by cautious step, to descend the stair.
Ben Bragg was talking very loudly. His tones hinted at more than one surreptitious drink.
“See here, Neddy, I’m going to tell you s-something. You’re too good for this bum you’re married to. It d-drives me wild to think of a b-bright, pretty girl like you tied to such a clod . . . Pass me those pickles, Neddy . I’ll s-stump you to cut and run.”
Edna’s answer was indistinguishable.
“Bill?” repeated Bragg. “Oh, if Bill kicks, we’ll sue him for alimony . . Gee, these cheese and pimento sandwiches taste good !”
Again Edna argued in undertones.
“I’ve lots of money, Neddy . . . and lots of b-brains. When I hit the train out of this hick town I’ll pack $10,000 cash from that Higgins dame for a lot of beautiful stock certificates . . . she’ll get a shock when she finds that Standard of South Dakota just simply ain’t what say, you come along?”
Edna seemed to protest.
“Oh, leave the danged kids. You aren’t cut out for a mother. You’re a born sweetheart. Kiss me, Neddy.”
And then Bill Adams heard a smack.
But it wasn’t a kiss. The sound, louder and more emphatic than a wet towel slapped on a bathroom wall, intoxicated Bill Adams. The most heavenly joy of a lifetime overwhelmed him like a flood.
In a twinkling, Bill Adams, drunk with joy, inflamed with a long-forgotten lust for battle, thumped and jumped down the remaining six steps and crashed over chairs and tables to the kitchen.
“Over the top, boys, an’ give ’em hell,” he bellowed.
Ben Bragg, more than slightly pale, hastily put the kitchen table betwixt himself and the attacking force.
“Don’t dare touch me,” he shrilled. “You . . . you if the police hear of
this, think of the scandal! Neddy, Neddy, phone the police quick!”
Edna stood with hands prayerfully clasped and an eager light in her eyes, while Bill clambered over the table. Ben Bragg tried to dodge. Bill jumped. He caught Ben Bragg, not lovingly, about the neck with a strangling left arm; while with his smashing right fist he massaged the million dollar smile off the handsome face. And all the while he made up for his long silence.
“Why don’t you hit back? Ah, that’s better,” as Ben Bragg’s fist caught him on the neck. “What’s the matter with your guard?” for Bill’s right found Ben Bragg’s nose and flattened it worse than Vimy Ridge. “Here’s where we bust the Hindenburg line,” and Bill Adams’ left padlocked Ben’s eye.
Next minute Bill drew back and let both fists go simultaneously for Ben Bragg’s chin, and Ben went down.
When Bill Adams returned from a hurried trip to the guest room, Ben Mavity Bragg was coming to sufficiently to whimper for the police.
Bill Adams gripped his collar, yanked Ben to his feet, and propelled him to the front door. “So it’s the police you want,” he shouted. “I’ll give you a flying start.” And Ben, helped by two kicks and a shove, went flying down the front steps, the two club bags hurtling after him.
“There’s a woman around here somewhere,” finished Bill. “Take her, too. I’m too mid-Victorian for her. She can express herself plastering your pretty face with beefsteak.
The chirrup of the car as it leapt away from the curb brought Bill to his senses.
“Edna!” he shouted. “Edna!”
'M’EXT moment Bill Adams stood
' staring blankly after the receding car, and a moment later the car was gone and all he could see was the shadowy street and the wreck of Ben Bragg trying to outstrip the car.
He went desolately into the house. Upstairs, Cora whimpered. Bill Adams brought her downstairs, wrapped in a woolly comforter; and rocked her and sang:
The Prince of Wales has hair outside.
It covers all of his pesky hide . .
He was utterly mixed. He, Bill Adams, devotee of peace, personification of unutterable patience, had lost his temper, lost his free boarder, and lost his wife— not to mention a six-cylinder car.
He rocked dismally and sang desolately, till after what seemed like hours the front door opened, as though swung by a timid breeze; and along a path of newborn moonlight came a vision eerie, ghostly, lovely, but—determined.
“Oh, B-Bill,” she sobbed, “if I’d only known—if only you’d hit him like that the first time he smiled—if only you’d kicked him that way three months ago— if—if—”
Consolingly he patted her hand.
The telephone rang. Edna ran to it, but could not talk for sobbing. So Bill handed little Cora to her and caught up the receiver. The police chief was speaking:
“Zat you, Bill Adams? Say, that Bragg fellow was in here to lay an information . . . Yes, assault and battery
I told him we’d take it, and we’d also take the information Mrs. Adams wanted to lay for insulting language, beating a board bill unprovoked assault on one William Adams, securing money from William Adams by false pretenses, attempting to defraud Mrs. Higgins, having liquor elsewhere than in a private house, damaging furniture by falling against it and taking a motor car without the owner’s permission. And I told him also we had investigated the bona fides of the Standard Oil Company of South Dakota and found it had neither bona nor fides . . . and about then Mr. Bragg said he was afraid, after all, he couldn’t press the case, as he’d just remembered an important engagement in Buenos Aires.”
Bill hung up the receiver.
“And,” exclaimed Edna, “if ever he comes back, I’ll kill him. After all you’ve done for him, to think of him trying to hit you.”
Bill’s brain began to function.
“Edna, it must have been monotonous for you. I—I really must step out
Through tears she smiled; and the smile was worth more to Bill than many million dollars.
“Don’t, Bill. Don’t step out any more. Just look at the kitchen furniture. You’ve stepped out plenty for a lifetime.”